The young man brooded in his darkroom, pursued by dark thoughts. His yarmulke felt like lead; his head sagged to his knees. People hung all around him, smiling. His cell phone rang.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Appelbaum,” he yelled, concrete walls ringing in echo. She was eighty. “Yes, yes – Baruch Hashem. Yes, I heard. Mazel Tov.” Her prayer group’s twentieth anniversary. He told his mother he’d do it for free. He sighed and ran a hand through his unruly red hair. “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.” Why do they never hear the worst part the first time you say it? he wondered. “I can’t do it. My camera broke,” he lied. “I’m sorry. I know it’s tomorrow. I know it’s expensive. I-I’m so sorry. I know. Mazel Tov. I’m sorry. Bye.”
He pushed his plastic glasses up on his brow and put his face in his hands for a few moments. Then he grabbed his camera and stepped into the street.
Standing in the alley’s aperture, Zalmy craned his neck, already strained by his dangling warship of a camera, to read faded house numbers. Seems to be the right place, he thought, and felt his stomach jolt. After months of quiet conversations near the tables of the homeless at various wedding halls and weeks of handwritten petitions stuffed between the third and fourth beams of a certain bench on Eastern Parkway (“Not the second and third,” Charlie had roared, drunk. “The Slaughterers’ Society!”) he finally secured an audience before a group that wasn’t supposed to exist. He walked past a hill of foul trash bags and came to a corroded metal door set in a stone archway. On the door, in printed black letters in the shadow of the arch, invisible unless you were loading it into your eyeballs directly, was:
Orthodox Hebrew Guild of Daguerreotypers (Est. 1840)
The wedding photographer’s club, profaned Zalmy. Holding his camera as a shield, he knocked on the door.
A slim young man in a purple shirt and a cloak of indifference opened the door with one hand, blinked in the sunlight and stepped aside to allow Zalmy’s passage. Zalmy hesitated. Slim took a sip of coffee from a plastic cup and raised an eyebrow. Zalmy came to a spontaneous, illogical, but utterly certain understanding of his own inferiority. He bent his head in shame and shuffled past the gatekeeper, pressing against the wall so as not to impale himself on the gelled prow of Slim’s haircut.
He beheld a cavern so like his own rattrap basement he almost thought he was in the wrong place. Charlie was absent, but his seat at the round metal table was unmistakable, festooned with the stickers the old eccentric loved so much. Charlie wasn’t even a photographer; he was a member of every secret Jewish society in Brooklyn by force of a treaty signed two decades earlier between the Freemasons, the Pew Nailers, and the Bad Pastry Catering League after a fatal accident at a highly public yet exclusive circumcision ceremony. Manny sat to Charlie’s left, a cave troll in suspenders. In front of him on the table a pack of Pall Malls rested next to his legendary beat-up old Pentax. Manny had been in this business longer than anyone alive, and Zalmy was certain he held the answers. To Manny’s left sat a Bar-Mitzvah boy, not a hair on his lip, pressing buttons on a gleaming Canon more expensive than a thousand of Slim’s coffees. Zalmy knew that despite his age, the Lifschitz kid was a major up-and-comer on the scene with extraordinary talent for photography and for using his age to leverage others out of jobs. His face was innocent but his eyes were sharp and his blood a cool mixed drink. Next to him sat a Chassid Zalmy didn’t recognize. He wore wire-rim glasses and a guarded expression and rocked back and forth in his seat as he watched Zalmy, weighing and measuring. Slim had the final spot. Zalmy stood near the entrance.
Manny rumbled like the subway. “We hereby gather for this the two-thousand-and-eighty-fifth convocation of our cabal to discuss matters photographical. All present assent to prevent exposure of all shared words, pictures, prayers, runes, scribal etchings, cookery, archaeological inscriptions, mythological subscriptions, apothecarial prescriptions, new technologies…speaking of food, it’s your turn, Yitzchak. Nu?”
“Five minutes, my wife is bringing, G-d willing,” said the Chassid quietly and respectfully. He launched into a monologue in brassy Hungarian Yiddish (its quietude and respectfulness undiminished) that Zalmy couldn’t follow, except for the ‘Baruch Hashem’ at the end of every sentence.
Zalmy looked to the other two – perhaps he could sneak a conversation with one of them. But the kid still had his head in his machine and Slim had created a phone ex nihilo (his pants pockets certainly had no room for it) and was tapping away.
“Uh, excuse me?” Zalmy slipped in after a ‘Baruch Hashem.’
He thought no one had heard but Yitzchak was suddenly jabbing his hand quietly and respectfully toward him and the other three laughed.
“I need help with my photos,” said Zalmy, because what defense have newcomers outside the simple truth?
“Ugh!” shouted Manny as if poked in the rear by an unrepentant bramble.
Zalmy stepped back a pace.
“Don’t worry,” said Slim, eyes on his own lap. “It’s his planetoid arthritis flaring up.”
“Your father’s a leper and a thief,” said Manny in the tune of ‘kindly be quiet, good sir.’
Silence followed this exchange, so Zalmy pressed on, “I thought no one could help me with my problem better than the Club.”
“Should get one of these,” grunted Slim, waggling his phone. Manny gave him a warning glance.
“No one on the Internet,” said Zalmy, “appreciates the depth of the issue.”
He didn’t know of the group’s perceived irrelevance in the information age. He didn’t know of the plots to close the Guild’s doors permanently. For the first time, he held their focus.
He unhooked his camera from his neck and turned it on. Its screen showed a picture he snapped at a wedding the week before. He handed it to Slim, who looked at it as if it was partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. “It’s a picture of men dancing at a chassunah. Am I missing something?”
“Yes,” said Zalmy.
Slim shrugged and handed it to Manny. The photographic sage, famous in the neighborhood and hired throughout the country, pursed his lips and looked the picture over, the SLR a toy in his slab hands.
“I don’t see it,” fell the decree from on high. “Seems normal to me.” He passed the camera to Yitzchak, who barely glanced at it before handing it to the kid.
Maybe I’m completely crazy, thought Zalmy. The idea was not a stranger to him. He had almost despaired when he heard, “That’s weird.” His head snapped up.
“What is, nu?” said Yitzchak.
“The people in the picture. They look sad.”
Zalmy exhaled. “Look through the rest,” he said.
“They’re all sad,” said the kid, thumbing the controls.
“That’s right. Since last year –”
(“Look close,” the kid was saying to Yitzchak, who peered at the screen with quiet and respectful interest.)
“– my pictures are sad. It doesn’t matter if they’re dancing, it doesn’t matter if they’re smiling. The pictures are just miserable.” They passed it back around. “It started with commissioned portraits,” Zalmy said. “Sometimes they’d be normal. Sometimes I could fix them, touch them up. Eventually I had to start making excuses and returning money. It spread to all my photos. Did you get to the one of the bridge yet?”
Slim nodded, hunched over the screen, face inscrutable. Zalmy knew what he saw, a standard shot of the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge bracketing clear blue sky. Pixel for pixel, it was entirely normal. Yet somehow the mind was helplessly drawn to the height, and the drop, and the consequences. Every time. Like a curse.
“Ah,” said Manny, the way one charitably says ‘ah’ if someone until that point had been miscommunicating and in spite of their incompetence one pierced the veil of obfuscation and could now be of assistance. “Well, if experienced photographers weren’t able to tell at first glance, your clients’ll probably miss it.”
“But it’s,” said Zalmy, “a problem.”
“What, you don’t like your photos? What difference does that make?”
“Do you know why a group of competing businessmen form a guild?” said Manny. He rested his hand inside his shirt and Zalmy had a crazy notion that a weapon hid there. The others bowed their head respectfully. “To conspire against the public. To agree on fixed prices. To decide what others need to pay for an inferior service they don’t need. You think your photographs are photographs? I studied under Bentzy Ehrlich!”
“I’m sure he was a great photographer.”
“No, he was just a photographer. You’re not a photographer. No one nowadays is a photographer. Just get the job done, kid. Your photos are means to an end.”
“I just want happy pictures.”
“And I want Bentzy Ehrlich to play dominoes with me down at the docks.”
“So you can’t help me?”
“Tsk,” said Yitzchak.
As this profundity penetrated reality and the following absolute silence extended ad absurdum, Zalmy was aware of life’s slow piecewise procession, clock tick by clock tick, and of how we all must one day grow old and wither, and how life is not a photograph.
Said Yitzchak in the quietest and most respectful way imaginable, “It’s probably just a phase. Take more pictures, keep doing what you’re doing, G-d, will help, and all will end in joy and happiness.”
“Keep doing?” repeated Zalmy.
“You know: follow the rule of thirds, frame your shots, and G-d will help.”
Your insistence on repetitively following a set of rules and hoping for success above all reason has got to be metaphorical, Zalmy wanted to say, but resisted for the fear of coming completely unglued.
“He’s telling you right,” said Manny. “Did you ever shoot at Ebbets Field, the air crisp like a pressed uniform? Did you put wealth on film at the Bossert Hotel? No? Stick to the rules, kid. They’ll fix you up.”
“But don’t you think there’s something wrong with my photos? Something extraordinary?”
“You think you’re special?” asked Slim in the exact flavor of sarcasm only available to religious Jews. “We all have our challenges. We all have to rise above them.”
“I’m just here to ask advice.”
“Listen, we look like we’re about the same age. Learn a lesson from a fellow student. When adults ask for advice, they ask like they know they’re the thousandth person asking, not like they’re G-d’s personal brainteaser.”
“Am I? The thousandth person asking, that is.”
Slim said (ostensibly to himself, because Zalmy couldn’t imagine he was expected to respond), “Where do you people come from? Be normal, for G-d’s sake.”
“Look at that picture! They’re smiling at their only daughter’s wedding. They look like they’re at her funeral.”
“G-d forbid,” said Yitzchak and Manny in high and low harmony.
“How did you develop that attitude?” said Slim.
“Be nice to him, Berel,” warned the kid, of all people.
“No, honestly. How are you gonna fit into adult life? You think you’re special. You think the world owes you respect.”
Kid smirked. “Who respects you?” he asked Slim.
“I sit on the council of the Orthodox Hebrew –”
“Because your father lets you,” said the kid gleefully.
The tiniest of glances between Manny and Slim.
The tiniest blink of Zalmy’s eyes.
The tiniest one in the room asked, “Have you tried changing cameras?”
Said Slim, “Yeah, maybe if you tried a mirrorless –”
“Shut up about the mirrorless,” suggested the others. Slim went back to nursing his drink.
“It was the first thing I tried. Doesn’t help.” Zalmy said.
The kid scrunched up his face and said, “They’re right, in the end. I think you’re in a slump. It’s the only explanation.”
“So the problem is –”
“With you,” said Manny. “Where is that food, Yitzchak?”
“Maybe you’re depressed,” said the kid.
I am now.
“Nu, If it’s really bothering you,” said Yitzchak, “maybe you should seek professional help. A therapist, or something.”
“There’s nothin’ that’d make me get a shrink, personally,” said Manny. “But that’s just personal. Everyone’s got their personal stuff, no? I think that’s really your best bet.” They looked at Zalmy expectantly. He realized with a start that they were ready for him to leave.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting help if you need it,” said Zalmy. “But, it’s just, my pictures are sad.”
“A sign of deeper issues, no?” said Yitzchak.
Zalmy thought of Mrs. Appelbaum and straightened his glasses, at a loss. He noticed for the first time the dandruff on Yitzchak’s shoulders, and the way the room’s bare squiggly bulbs cast small shadows where the paint was peeling off the walls. And clarity struck him. It struck him in his soul, at the inertial point within that refuses to annihilate itself. It filled him with fire, and his lips mouthed the flames. He said, “I think the people are sad.”
“The people. In the photos. I think they’re sad.”
“And the bridge? It wants to jump off of itself?” Manny asked.
Ever the realist, Manny, thought Zalmy, surprised at himself. “I don’t know. Maybe it had a sad architect. I’m just sure it’s not me. And if there’s no photographical explanation known to the wise men of this council, and there’s nothing wrong with the photographer, it must be the subjects.”
“You’re saying your pictures capture something ours don’t?” said Manny. Oh, Manny. I thought pictures were just means to an end.
“Ridiculous,” said Yitzchak. That something should change?
Text text, went Slim’s fingers. That’s right, savor your birthright, the right to apathy.
“It seems weird,” said the kid. So be it.
“I’m leaving,” said Zalmy, though he felt they suddenly had more they wished to say.
As he stepped into the sunlight, he saw motion down the alley. It was Charlie, wearing his iconic sticker-encrusted sweater (“I ♥ New York” and “Loshon Horah Kills” and everything in between), shuffling to the Guild’s door with a slight limp that had worsened in recent days. For some reason, he felt glad to see the wizened eccentric walking in broad daylight.
Charlie held out a scrap of cardboard, purple on one side, grey on the other. It looked for all the world like it was torn from a cereal box.
“I tore it from a cereal box,” said Charlie, and winked as he walked through the door.
Printed in a white businesslike sans serif on the purple field was:
Of all the things you bring to the table, YOU are the most important. YOU will never happen again. YOU are valuable. And no matter what YOU do, YOU are great!™
Zalmy walked to the end of the alley, dangling the cardboard with two fingers, unsure what dangers might lurk in the words. He heard laughing and saw the kids across the street playing under the blossoming tree. Some white petals dotted the sidewalk; some drifted in the breeze.